Can Pack Slow Eagles? Can Eagles Slow Pack?Posted:Nov 14th, 2014 4:06 pm
There's no dancing around it: this is the Pack's most important game between now and week 17. A win against the Eagles will protect the Pack when it comes to playoff tiebreakers, providing a better record vs. NFC foes and helping in playoff seeding. Of course, as it stands now the Packers are on the outside looking in, so as Al Davis always said, 'just win, baby.'
The Eagles come to town as hot as the Packers, fresh off a Monday night demolition of the Panthers. At 7-2, they lead the NFC East and are riding an improving defense that's second in the league in sacks and a reborn Mark Sanchez, ready to make his first road start leading that high octane offense.
As stacked as the top of the NFC is, there's no guarantee that 11 wins will get you in this season, unless you win your division. It's looking more and more like the finale against the Lions could be a playoff game, with the winner claiming the North and the loser finding itself on the outside looking in. Obviously, a lot can happen between now and then, but if you believe the Cardinals and Saints are in, then two of these teams will stay home in January: Seattle, SF, Philly, Dallas, Detroit and the Pack.
Thankfully, this one's at Lambeau. Since stumbling out of the gat against the Jets, the Packers have been on fire at home, averaging more than 41 points per game. Aaron Rodgers is 3-0 against the Eagles, including the playoffs, with all three wins coming on the road. And as you know, he's 29-3 at home and plays even better when the needle drops below 40, as it will be at kickoff.
OK, let's start with the challenges the Eagles present. Chip Kelly's offense relies on tempo, averaging 71 plays per game (the Pack average 59), but it's tougher to accomplish on the road. Last year LeSean McCoy ran for 155 yards and common wisdom says they'll rely on him against the Pack's porous run defense. But McCoy is averaging just 3.7 per carry this season and he's been held to 25 yards or less three times.
Much of that is due to a banged up offensive line which has gotten healthier in the past week. Left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce are back from injuries and form a strong unit--the weak link being at right tackle (Lane Johnson). McCoy makes most of his hay against nickel formations, which the Packers are likely to be in a lot against the Eagles' favored three receiver sets. When they go with a double tight end look, Darren Sproles is a big threat out of the backfield, as are tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz.
The Eagles are too potent to be stopped, but there's reason for hope. They are their own worst enemy; they've been flagged 35 times on offense and are not great in the red zone. Their biggest threat near the goal line has been rookie Jordan Matthews out of the slot, but Casey Hayward should be up to the challenge there.
The key is putting pressure on Sanchez, who luxuriated in the pocket against the toothless Panthers but will have no such comfort against the Packers' pass rush. Expect Dom Capers to blitz heavily and try to confuse Sanchez who is prone to interceptions when flustered (his failed Jets career featured more picks than touchdowns).
No one knows where Clay Matthews will line up for sure, but it would be a surprise if he doesn't play inside again on early downs to try to keep McCoy from doing too much damage. He looked like a natural in his first start and fills an immense need in the middle of the defense.
On offense, the biggest challenge will be keeping the pass rush at bay. The switch last year to 3-4 is paying off with linebackers Connor Barwin (10.5 sacks) and Trent Cole (3.5 sacks) leading the way. Nickel rusher Vinny Curry has also been a force with five sacks. The Eagles know you can't blitz Rodgers so they need to get pressure from those guys. If the Packers keep Rodgers clean he should feast on an average secondary that lacks big time playmakers. They're healthy, but corners Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, along with nickel guy Brandon Boykin will be hard pressed to keep up with Nelson, Cobb and Adams.
The Pack will try to keep the pass rush off-balance with Eddie Lacy, who should be able to chew up yards on the ground and through the air (14 catches for 201 yards the last three games). Rodgers will also keep them off balance with his effective hard counts: the Eagles have been flagged ten times for jumping offsides--they worked on it a lot this week, but it will be louder and colder at Lambeau.
Where the Eagles have the edge is on special teams--Sproles will be a handful on punt returns (two TDs this season) and Chris Polk has taken a kickoff return to the house as well. Rookie kicker Cody Parkey is 16-17 on field goals, but the Florida native and former Auburn star has never kicked in cold weather. Philly has also blocked two punts this season.
But there are a lot of intangibles working in the Packers' favor. They've been home for two weeks, while the Eagles come to town on a short week, after playing on Monday night. It's their third road game in the last four weeks. The Pack is seeking some revenge for the loss at home last season (a game that Seneca Wallace started and Scott Tolzien finished--I was there, man was it ugly). And most importantly, the Pack will don their 1929 throwbacks--they're 3-0 when they sport the navy and gold beauties, winning by a combined score of 89-32.
I'm assuming we'll see TJ Lang on Josh Sitton out there, which will go a long way in making me feel comfortable that the Pack is up to this 'playoff game in November' matchup. Some national guys (ESPN's Sal Paolantonio for one) believe this is a preview of the NFC championship. If that's the case, this game might determine where that one is played.
As strong as the Packers have looked at home and with the Rodgers vs. Sanchez mismatch working in our favor, I see the Pack staying perfect at home and able to outscore Kelly's Eagles. Look for at least two Sanchez picks--one may go to the house.
Packers 34 Eagles 24